Sunday, June 16, 2013

You Will Not Care A Man Can Fly

Just saw the new Superman movie:

Good news, it's not as bad as Superman IV.

Bad news, it's not as good as Superman III.

Subtitled "The Man Of Stealing Two Hours Of My Life."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Of Freak Mojo and Dead Clowns

This weekend we visited an annual event called the Great Glebe Garage Sale. For those of you unfamiliar with Ottawa, the Glebe is a very wealthy urban neighbourhood within spitting distance of downtown. Once a year, the entire 'hood gets together and throws a massive garage sale, with almost literally every house for blocks participating.

This being a rich neighbourhood, you'd think folks would generally have good stuff to get rid of. But I spent three hours cruising sales that, as far as I can tell, were mainly unloading Debbie Gibson CD's, used inkjet printers and other items for which there is no market whatsoever, anywhere.

Okay, one man's trash is another's treasure, but seriously--how did you get rich enough to live in the Glebe if your business sense isn't acute enough to tell you that literally no one has any use for a how-to-use-the-Internet book from 1997?

All right, I'm just being pissy. Sorry. The thing is, my garage-sailing skills are mediocre at best. I'm really jealous of people who have that seventh sense that directs them to where incredibly weird and awesome finds can be had.

People like my friend Beau, who for as long as I've known him has been tuned in to a whole other Luck Plane of finding bizarre shit. When we were in high school, there was this idea that late-night TV was full of weird cheesy old B-movies and forgotten, unloved cultural ephemera. (This was before capitalism, having for years made the uncharacteristic mistake of overestimating people's intelligence,  figured out that people will indeed sit through an hour-long commercial.) But when I turned on the TV at 3 am, I was never able to find The Prisoner or Godzilla Versus Mothra. Kitch and bulldada evaded my best efforts to find it.

But pull an allnighter at Beau's drinking coffee and eating chips, and turn on the TV, and wham--there is what appears to be a camcorder video of a guy eating grass, goat-style, which appears to be growing on another guy's head. Yes there is.

What I'm saying is--dude's got some major freak-magnet mojo.

Anyway, as it happens, Beau was cruising the Great Glebe Garage Sale the same day and came across this. It's a cheesy paperback mystery from gotta-be-the-fifties about a business magnate who joins the circus (!) as a clown (!!), and turns up dead of an apparent suicide a few days later (!!!), but it's awfully suspicious (you think?) and the maybe-murder has to be solved by a retired reporter who spends his days writing angry letters to the editor about how inept the cops are (!!!) It's called "Unhappy Hooligan" which--okay, look, I haven't read it, maybe I should, but as far as I know "hooligan" does not mean "clown." Are there gangs of violent soccer fans in this book too? I don't know, but at this point it wouldn't surprise me.

Knowing of my perverse fascination with dead clowns, he snapped it up for me.  If you can't have the weirdo magnet mojo yourself, next best thing is to have a friend like Beau who will find the stuff for you. Thanks pal!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A perfectly reasonable question for climate change deniers.

So, in honour of today's news that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have reached 400 parts per million: a bit of a point that's been brewing in my mind for awhile.

I think it's time that climate change deniers tell us all exactly what they would accept as sufficient evidence to justify serious action on global warming. They've never done that.

I mean, obviously they say they don't believe in it. But they must agree that, hypothetically, if it were true, there would be something that would be enough to persuade them. I don't believe Elvis is still alive, but if someone brought me an living, breathing old guy and took his fingerprints and DNA samples, and a body of qualified and disinterested geneticists and fingerprintologists told me they matched confirmed samples taken from the King back in 1957... I'd revise my opinion the the matter.

Just because you don't believe something doesn't mean you can't lay out a set of circumstances that, if met, would change your mind.

From the very beginning, the science and politics of climate change have been met by a series of denials. First, the claim was that there was no warming, indeed the planet was cooling. Then, okay, it was warming after all, but surely not due to human activities. Then, yes, global warming, and indeed we were causing it, but hey--maybe it's a good thing. Plants eat CO2, therefore more CO2 means more plants means more food for us. Then, no, okay, that was kind of a stupid idea, global warming is probably not a good thing, but it's probably too late to do anything about it. (Oh, if only we'd known sooner!)

The point being, at every turn--at every turn--the deniers' fundamental objections were addressed beyond any reasonable doubt to someone who has any respect for the scientific method. Whereupon the objection promptly changed, and science and climate activism said "Oh, okay" and gamely went back to the drawing board, patiently studying the question and gathering the evidence to address the deniers' concerns. Whereupon the goal posts were promptly moved again. Wash, rinse, repeat, for decades.

Of course, the objections were always different, but oddly enough they always, always pointed exactly to the same policy directive:  "We should not do anything to limit carbon emissions." Really quite remarkable; all that study, all that new data, all those fundamentally different conclusions, and yet it always meant, basically, hands off Big Oil and Big Coal. I guess all roads do lead to Rome.

Now, at no time, to my knowledge, has the climate change denial industry stated clearly what evidence would persuade them that climate change is real, caused by humans, and clear and present danger that needs to be addressed now. The best they've ever been able to do is, "No, that's not good enough. No, thanks for trying, but that won't do either. How about this? Hmmm... no, I don't think so."

They're like restaurant patrons who won't say what they want to eat, but keep sending every dish back to the kitchen.

Now, I've been writing this post as if I thought there was some chance the deniers were acting in good faith. I was going to suggest that the deniers should be required to clearly state what they would accept--and then the rest of us can decide if that smoking gun looks too much like a mushroom cloud. The point is to call them out and make them clarify their position.

But let's not kid ourselves. It isn't 1990 anymore and the pretense that there can be any honest disagreement on the subject stopped being tenable a long time ago.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Zombie Apocalypse Las Vegas

I just got back from the annual Viva Las Vegas rockabilly festival in (where else?) Las Vegas. It's my third time going, and if there's a better opportunity to see the kind of mid-century upbeat dance music I love--rockabilly, rock and roll, jump blues, western swing--I don't know where it is.

I always come back with a few hundred bucks worth of CD's. Leaving aside the current bands who play this kind of stuff, there is a mind-blowingly huge catalog of old recordings out there. Seems there were hundreds of record labels in the 40's and 50's, all recording great stuff that dedicated music nerds have saved and reissued on CD. For every Sun Records, there were dozens of tiny regional or city-specific labels who recorded some killer tracks by local bands who promptly went back to their day jobs driving trucks or whatever.

I feel like I went for a long time loving this stuff but having no idea where to find it. There are bajillions of recordings. Once you find a vein, there's so much it's almost overwhelming. Go search out Wild and Frantic, Hey DJ!; East Coast Teen Party; or Rock 'n' Roll Orgy--each of these CD series has a dozen or more volumes, all packed with great stuff. (Um, watch out googling that last one though.)

Aside from the music, the event itself is sort of like a Star Trek convention for Back To The Future nerds, right down to the ballroom full of people who are obviously not teenagers, dressed like 1950's teenagers and cutting up the floor like professional swing dancers. There's a huge classic car show which--even for a committed pedestrian like me--is pretty impressive.There are merchant booths selling vintage threads, tiki knicknacks, and industrial-strength pomades to keep your ducktail tuff--including some hair goop with the if-nothing-else-memorable name, Cock Grease.

There's a whole other post to be written sometime about the appeal of this whole subculture. Were I to summarize, I would say that there are a lot of reasons to wish it was 1955 again, if you were able to surgically remove the racism, sexism and homophobia. (One of the perks apparently being that you could give your product a name without worrying that a google search will bury it dozen pages of porn sites.)

Anyway, as per my usual habit, I went down a bit early and spent a couple of days in the old downtown around Fremont Street. That original Rat Pack, Bugsy Siegel-era center has been gussied up in recent years for slightly less seedy audiences; they've clapped a giant roof over the street, and the roof is embedded with gajillions of LED's, making it a gigantic Blade Runner flat-screen TV.

Also as is my wont when I visit a new city, I took a walk out of said tourist area. Within two blocks found myself in the most desolate, fucked-up urban post-apocalyptic ruinscape I have ever seen--and I have seen my share of fucked-up urban et cetera. It was like I'd walked into a parallel universe where the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended very badly indeed. Block after block of demolished (or close to it) motels, their original and now-very-retro pylon signs flaking away in the desert sun.

 Looks like you're still charging too much.

 At a certain point you just give up and fill the pool with rocks.

If Downtown and the Strip are like Blade Runner without the rain, the surrounding area was like... I dunno... Planet of the Apes without the apes.

You maniacs! You blew it all up.... And I really wanted a burrito!

I recently heard an episode of This American Life, talking about how federal disability insurance has largely taken over the role of welfare in the United States. This tour bears it out. Almost literally everybody I saw--and there were a few people out at eight in the morning--had a cane, a walker or some sort of mobility device. I saw a guy pushing his girlfriend around in a grocery cart. Vegas being what it is, the extremes of poverty are probably particularly visible. But it looks like there are whole districts that subsist entirely on federal Social Security.... and this is what they're like.

The next day I took the bus out to something called the Zombie Apocalypse Store. It's a ridiculously stupid, not to mention awesomely cool, little store that sells all manner of stuff you would need to survive the hordes of living dead. Machetes, ammunition, army MRE's, first aid kids.

I thought about asking them for a ride back to the hotel but I didn't like the look of the guy they'd already picked up.

The Zombie Apocalypse Store is located out the Clark County exurban sprawl, in the middle of a vast, depopulated, de-industrialized wasteland of abandoned one-storey industrial buildings, many of which formerly sold granite countertops and other necessities for the great twenty-first century housing bubble which now, five years after popping, feels like a whole other world. As I trudged back to the hotel, I thought it was one of the few places on earth where a zombie apocalypse would be an improvement. At least there would be people walking around.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Doghouse in the house.

My old roommate once described my modus operandi as "Run Fast, Stand Still." It's taken from a Ray Bradbury article that likens fiction writing to how geckos move--long periods of complete immobility, followed by sudden and blindingly quick movement. It was meant as a reassurance, as I was going through an extended period of dithering, indecision, and unproductive farting around that was causing me, in my late twenties, to question the directions I had chosen in life and my suitability for a career in the creative arts. He meant to say that I spent a lot of time "doing nothing" but when I did get to work--drawing comix, writing screenplays, cutting and assembling photomontages--it happened all at once in a highly productive burst.

In practice, since I ended up leaving the ranks of the Creative Class and he stayed, maybe RFSS isn't the best approach. Patrick--the marathon runner to my sprinter, or perhaps the R2-D2 to my C-3PO--was a sedulous grinder-out of plays, rewrites and rewrites of rewrites, writing every day, filling shelves with text that grew incrementally better with every draft and, by the sheer volume and perseverance and doggedness, became an excellent writer who (against all odds) now makes a good chunk of his living through creative writing.

In any case, when it comes to creative stuff, I'm still prone to lots of dithering--followed by sudden, precipitous leaps of Just Doing Stuff.

Last week I bought an upright bass off Kijiji. This is one of those things I've been wanting to do for at least a decade. I played electric bass in high school, part (and, it must be said, the weakest part) of a teenage loogan band banging out Stones covers, but gave it up in university. But since then I found genre after genre of music--jazz, jump blues, mid-century R&B, and rockabilly--that I really wanted to play and that all called for the distinctive, resonant sound of an upright bass. The electric bass just doesn't cut it.

To tell the truth, I would have done this a long time ago... if not for the Left Handed Thing.

The Left Handed Thing is the bane of all naturally left-handed would-be musicians. (Well, not all, but anyone seeking to play something with strings anyway.) If you're left-handed, your natural tendency is to want to finger the strings with your right hand and pluck or strum with your left. This means most instruments are "backwards" relative to how you'll be playing.

If you're a lefty, you know it right off the bat, the first time you play air guitar and find yourself mirroring the motions of the right-handed player on TV.

Some lefties end up learning to play right-handed, generally at the behest of music teachers who insist that they go against their instincts. Some of them succeed in doing so, though it's a lot of extra work in what is already a bit of a learning curve. I can see the practical benefits of this, since most instruments are right-handed and in the long term learning to play that way will make life easier. But on a philosophical level it bothers me--like those de-queerifying camps run by the religious right, who, if you're concerned your kid might be, you know, you can send them there and they'll straighten him right out.

When I started playing in high school, I started by just turning my second-hand flea-market right-handed bass upside-down and playing it that way 'cause, well, I didn't know any better. But after awhile, a friend recommended that I get it restrung, making it a true left-handed instrument. The reasons for this were and remain unclear--something to do with being able to make chords. But I did it and was henceforth a left-handed player--an early instance of what would prove to be a lifelong habit of outsmarting myself in various arenas.

It's relatively easy to take an electric bass and reverse the strings and nut to make it left-handed. And there are plenty of reasonably-priced left-handed instruments available in music stores. It's inconvenient but manageable.

But when you decide to play an upright, all that goes out the window. Upright basses are expensive--orders of magnitude more expensive to begin with. You spend thousands of dollars, not hundreds, for an entry-level instrument. And while I'm sure they make left-handed uprights, the cost must be crazy.

You can get a right-handed instrument and get it reversed, but this involves going to a luthier--a master craftsman, applying woodworking techniques and a sophisticated understanding of acoustics and resonance and tone established on an intuitive level at least in ancient Greece and refined over generations with a quasi-monastic dedication to keeping ancient knowledge alive--in short, a cat who knows what the hell he's doing.

Plus, if you're a true lefty player, you face what I call the Marty McFly Problem. What if you learn to play left-handed on a left-handed instrument, and you're somewhere and for whatever reason you want to sit in on someone else's (almost certainly right-handed) instrument? (Answer:  Well, if Marty McFly had been left-handed, he'd'a been fucked, now wouldn't he?) And the bigger the instrument, the more likely that's how it's going to shake out. If you're a flautist you can casually bring your flute to the party and if everyone's just playing Monopoly or whatever, no problem--but you can't cart your doghouse across town on the bus just in case, not if you don't want to be a complete tool, one with a slipped disc in your back to boot.

So this all bounced around in my head for years, leaving me paralyzed like a robot with a bad piece of code, Program A Says I Must But Program B Says I Must Not, does not compute, error error 00111101011101001010 (smoke).

But in the past six months I learned--and this is kind of the point of this post--you can actually pick up a right-handed bass and learn to play it backwards. Unless you're planning to become some kind of virtuoso classical musician, if you just want to play for fun, you can do it. Actually, it's kind of odd how long it took for me to find this out, given the Internet and all. It's part of why I wrote this post, so that if someone Googles a string like "can I play a right-handed bass backwards" or "left-handed upright bass can I play backwards" or "why does God hate me" they'll arrive here.

After seeing several left-handed players whale on a right-handed instrument (including the left-handed lead guitarist for the Space Cadets, borrowing his brother's right-handed upright at Viva Las Vegas 15, and Paul McCartney in this video) it occurred to me that it's just not that big a deal. This was confirmed a few weeks ago by my friends Randy and Symphony, who are two-thirds of the RV-dwelling, guitarist-kidnapping psychobilly trio The Living Deads. These two assure me that there are many, many left-handed rockabilly bassists who just picked up a right-handed instrument and play it goofy-like.

So that's what I'm doing. Since it's been forever since I've played, I sort of have to learn all over again anyway. But it's been a lot easier than I expected. I'm looking forward to a long winter of practicing and making up for lost time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hire learning

Some weeks ago I wrote an editorial for the Moncton Times and Transcript, about the ongoing student protests in Montreal and some of the reasons for same. I actually have no idea if they ran it. New Brunswick's media monopoly, owned and operated by the clan of beloved patroons that owns everything worth owning in the province, now has a fee-for-access model for all their newspapers. So I can't access their site to see if my free labour has been duly exploited or not.

Anyway, I'll re-post it here in the next day or so.

In the meantime, on a related note, I recently attended a gathering of alumni from the more illustrious of my alma maters. It was one of these donation-soliciting events disguised as a celebration of our storied school, steeped in tradition, from whose hallowed halls sprang so many people who, I dunno, did important stuff or something.

The real hook, though (aside from the free drinks at the Chateau Laurier) was the promise of a discussion on the future of The University. Given the goings-on in Montreal, I was looking forward to a lively discussion.

In the event, the discussion actually took the form of a panel of August Personages from the institution--the principal, one of the better-known professors, and a retired Member of Parliament and alumna.

The audience's participation was to take the form of an electronic voting device, with which we could answer a multiple-choice poll after each round of discussion by the August Personages. The results would show up on the screen after each round, echoing the time-honored academic traditions of Family Feud.

The first question had to do with the role of higher education, and whether universities should be training people for the workplace or teaching them to think and be enlightened citizens.

In the ensuing discussion it was agreed that the needs of the economy are changing so quickly, why, we can hardly imagine what it will need even a few years from now. This led inevitably to the conclusion that the citizen thing is more important.

Leave aside the central assumption, the either/or discussion of whether it's possible or necessary to do both. Presented with the question of training people for employment that is gainful enough to pay off the debts incurred in getting a degree, the answer was basically, "Well, that's hard to do, so it shouldn't be our job."

Imagine if you had cancer, and you went to an oncologist who said something like, "Well, curing cancer is really hard and we're not sure we can do it successfully. So I'm going to read you some poetry I wrote instead."

What I wanted to ask them was, "If a university degree isn't about training for the workplace, then why does essentially every middle-class or better job require one or more degrees as a minimum qualification?" Either university education is relevant to the job market or it isn't. If it isn't, someone should tell every human-resources department in Christendom. If it is, well, someone should tell these August Personages that if you're getting paid a lot of money to do something, you should expect that that thing will not exactly be easy.

Unfortunately this response was not one of the four options offered by the electronic voting device.

No matter. The audience, full of well-to-do alumni of this prestigious institution of critical thought and inquiry, were content to e-gurgitate the answer they were just fed. They didn't get where they are by asking awkward questions.

In fairness I should have probably stuck around to see if things got better. But I spend half my workday sitting around politely listening to bullshit. I left after the first round of questioning.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Roadside America!

I am inordinately pleased by this.

Roadside America started out as a book cataloguing the weird and (often unintentionally) hilarious roadside attractions that festoon the North American road system--dinosaur parks, mystery caves, and various contenders for World's Largest Ball of Twine. Fun and educational, at least compared to the public school system.

There may or may not still be a book, but Roadside now continues as a website, with updates all the time.

I recently submitted a tip on the baffling Joey Salter memorial in Moncton, which supposedly shows a ship rising from the depths (per the city's motto, "Resurgo.") But since the ship's captain is standing on the bow, it looks to any casual observer that the ship is actually sinking. Not exactly the kind of message the local Babbitts want to be sending. I can only assume the chamber of commerce took one look at finished product and smacked themselves in the forehead. What the hell were we thinking?

Anyway, they ran my tip. Some of us aspire to having cartoons published in the New Yorker, or articles in Harper's or the London Review of Books. Me, my aspirations are more modest. Also awesome.